DAMASCUS, SYRIA — LONG considered the ``weak link'' in the anti-Iraq coalition, Syria has qualified its support of the American-led forces - and signaled how it might react to Israeli military involvement in the event of war. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa said on Jan. 6 that ``Syria cannot accept any Israeli intervention in the crisis.'' He said that if Iraq launched a first strike against Israel, the Jewish state ``should not respond.''
Mr. Sharaa's comments - made at a press conference with United States Secretary of State James Baker III, after a meeting between Baker and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad - cast doubt on earlier Israeli assertions that Arab countries in the alliance would tolerate Israeli action in self defense.
Nevertheless, Western diplomats here say, Syria is only posturing for the post-crisis Middle East and that the government expects Israel to respond if attacked.
The Syrian reaction instead would depend on the nature of Israel's involvement. An exchange of missiles between Baghdad and Tel Aviv - initiated by Iraq - would not cause the Syrians to leave the Gulf allies and join Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But any attempt by Israel to send ground forces into Jordan, or from southern Lebanon into Syria, would force Damascus's hand, diplomatic sources here say.
``Syria will do nothing until it is absolutely pushed, but their threshold is difficult to pinpoint,'' says a Western diplomat. ``They are laying down their Arab credentials.''
Assad has already committed 19,000 troops to the Gulf alliance - including a full armored division - and given unqualified support for the 12 United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Syrian officials insist that their troops will only play a defensive role in any conflict, and rule out fighting within Iraq's borders.
A further reminder of Syria's pro-Arab stance came in an unprecedented personal appeal from Assad to the Iraqi leader, which was read out on state-run Damascus radio Jan. 13. The letter urged Saddam to put the interest of the Arab nation ahead of his own and to withdraw from Kuwait.
Despite 11 years of vitriol between the two leaders of rival wings of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Assad gave his ``brotherly commitment'' that if Iraq were attacked after withdrawing from Kuwait, then ``Syria, with all its material and moral strength, will stand firmly by your side. We will stand in the same trench and fight until victory is achieved.''
Though the message received wide coverage in Middle Eastern capitals from Tunis to Tehran, Saddam rejected it out of hand on Jan. 14 and vowed to cling forever to Kuwait. The Iraqi rejection was not reported in the Syrian press.
Throughout the crisis, Assad has sought to bolster his image with the West while maintaining his tough reputation among Arab leaders, diplomats say.
``The Syrians do not want to offend the Iraqi people or Arabs of the Western alliance,'' says a Western diplomat. ``They want to be all things to all men.''
``[Assad] has been able to maintain the balance so far,'' adds a Syrian source with close ties to the government, ``but if Israel crosses the Jordan River, Syria will have no choice but to fight [the Israelis].''
``Syrian enthusiasm for the alliance is diminishing,'' says a Western diplomat. When it joined the Gulf forces, ``Syria let itself believe that the UN deadline was not real, and that there would be no real possibility of fighting a war.''
As a reward for its support, Saudi Arabia and other newfound allies have added at least $1.3 billion to Syria's coffers. Most of that has reportedly been earmarked to buy East European and Chinese military hardware.
Another reason for Assad's support of the alliance, diplomats say, is that the primary problem in the Middle East - in Syria's view - is not Iraq, but Israel and the Palestinian question. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait has undermined Syria's territorial claims against Israel, which took the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 six-day war.
``It is illogical for one Arab state to occupy another,'' says a Syrian government official. ``It gives justification for Israel not to withdraw from our land.''